I've been watching loads of films lately (mostly facilitated by a string of rainy Sundays). I haven't written about any of them, yet, but in lieu of longer, more extensive reviews, I felt that I'd write a bit about some of the better ones I've seen in the past couple months before the hole gets too deep. The films I've chosen to highlight are not a compendium of everything I've watched; rather, they are films that I believe deserve a bit of attention that they may not otherwise garner. In chronologically viewed order:
Women in Revolt (1971)
Paul Morrissey directs this hilarious send up of the women's lib movement and follows the central trio of drag queens as they flop about an NYC that is long, long gone. Simultaneously side-splittingly funny and sad, this film exposes a lesser-seen side of the drag life, warts and all.
Takashi Shimizu, who shot to fame with Ju-on (The Grudge) and its myriad sequels, takes a less sensationalist, more experimental approach to obsession and horror in this philosophical and psychologically terrifying film. A reclusive cameraman discovers an underground kingdom and a chained woman who may or may not be a vampire. Twilight this ain't.
The Hanging Woman (1973)
Spanish gothic horror done remarkably well. Nothing groundbreaking here, but excellent atmosphere, some surprisingly good effects, and a great turn by the inimitable Paul Naschy all lead to a bona fide cult classic. The Troma disc (one of a couple - along with Combat Shock - where the label doesn't automatically translate to "Beware - generous helpings of garbage contained within") is fantastic, and represents the most complete document of this formerly forgotten film.
Loren Cass (2006)
Bold, disturbing vision of aimless youth, similar to Larry Clark's Kids, but without the seamy, exploitative feel. Out of this world melding of sound and image. Hard to call it "experimental", but certainly different, in the thorniest, most provocative way. A tough recommend (it's rented once in the near 2 months it has been on my staff picks shelf), but a powerful, incendiary watch, and not chiefly for the seemingly press-kit tailored "gimmick" of writer/director/actor Chris Fuller's begun-at-age-15, 8-years-in-the-making film.
400 Years of the Telescope (2009)
Fascinating doc on, shockingly, 400 years of the telescope. Immensely informative, and it never talks down to its audience. Veers dangerously close to techno-babble at times, but mostly just enough so to make you feel smarter than you are. This - and not Toy Story 2 - are what grownups should be watching on a Friday night.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (2004)
Captivatingly structured film about a man and a woman's short, passionate love affair, this film by Polish auteur Lech Majewski (based on his own novel) is heady, startling, and moving without being sentimental. You'll either view it as laughably pretentious or an absorbing, thought-provoking meditation on art, science, love and death. Highly, highly recommended.
Mala Noche (1985)
Gus Van Sant's debut feature follows the love triangle of a young Caucasian and two Mexican wetbacks as they fumble around a seedy Portland neighbourhood. Van Sant sets a template for his later films with sumptuous photography in super-saturated black and white, and the themes of displacement, gay acceptance/rejection, and loss that recur in his later films are all on display here. A fascinating document.
Take Out (2004)
A starkly simple film about a Chinese-American delivery man over the course of one numbingly hellish 24 hour shift. Almost has a doc feel at times, it is that unadorned and real.
House of the Devil (2009)
One of my most anticipated releases for this year, House of the Devil did not disappoint. Director Ti West nails the look, sound and feel of early '80s satanic cult horror in this creepily pervasive film that builds palpable dread before an explosive and bloody climax. Extremely satisfying.
The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)
Joshua Safdie's film follows a day or three in the life of a young woman as she wanders around New York, meets up with a friend, drives to Boston, back to NYC, gets arrested and then released, all the while pilfering small items of no real consequence, seemingly more out of fascination or something to do than the criminal urge. While it could easily be lumped in with the unfortunately named "Mumblecore" school, Safdie's film is a slyly different beast altogether. And instead of finding the characters generally annoying, I was bewitched by principal Eleonore Hendricks. Good, lo-fi stuff.
Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Miyazaki's first feature is a much different film than he currently puts out, which isn't to say it is better or worse, just different. It follows a master thief with a heart of gold who is out to save a princess and break up a counterfeiting ring, dodging his police pursuers the whole way. A hell of a lot of fun, the film moves at a break-neck pace, is whip-smart, mischievous, and playful. I've started watching all the Miyazaki films chronologically as I had previously only seen Spirited Away.
Barbet Schroeder's ode to S&M, Maitresse sees Gerard Depardieu at his most restrained, and I realized that without the histrionics, Depardieu is a solid actor and not just another Denis Pelletier look-alike. A complicated take on love, commitment, ownership and boundaries (physical and emotional), Maitresse is a weird winner.
Harry and Tonto (1974)
Scott wrote about this film at length awhile back, and I can't add much to his thoughts. A warm, humane and moving film that never veers into saccharine falsities. Carney is thoughtful and giving with a good sense of humour toward anything life tosses his way.
The Black Cat (1934)
Karloff and Lugosi square off in this superb Poe adaptation. Edgar G. Ulmer's inventiveness gives the production an amazing look, and gets a great turn out of both his leads. I've been working through the Bela Lugosi Collection, and this is the best of the bunch.
A Bucket of Blood (1959)
This Roger Corman beatnik horror-comedy totally caught me off guard. I was expecting cheap and cheesy, instead I got a disarming look at a man's desire for acceptance, and the sad, horrible lengths he will go to maintain his status once achieved. Dick Miller's Walter Paisley is a character who embodies the desperation and desire of the outsider and the hesitant and darkly comic brutality he must employ in order to keep up appearances...
So sweet. I'd never seen it before this viewing. One of those films you kind of have to be an asshole to hate.
A modern take on the Zatoichi tales, though this film has "Zatoichi" as a young girl. Stunningly beautiful (both Haruka Ayase's Ichi and the film), Ichi is delicate, artful, and totally kick-ass. I don't know why it took me so long to watch this. Recommended to any fans of samurai/Shaw Bros./Zatoichi films. Awesome.
Cat People (1942)
Jacques Tourneur was a master of shadows, of menace through suggestion, and Cat People is a fine example of this. When teamed with producer Val Lewton, the director was at his best. Simone Simon's Irena is wonderful at conveying the foreign quality of her character, both in a new country, and in intimacy. Coyness and seduction wrapped up in a ball of vulnerability and female ferocity. Not hard to read between the lines in this one - love hurts, sex kills!
Dillinger is Dead (1969)
Let's get fucked up and watch Dillinger is Dead! If you have to use mind-altering substances to appreciate this absolutely surreal, symbolic and psychedelic exercise in flaunting cinematic conventions, you're missing the point completely. Pop art, politics, bourgeois ennui, and marital fractures are central to Marco Ferreri's ferociously incendiary and peerless film; think Godard at his most enigmatic, Fellini at his most playful, and Rossellini at his most exact, and you're halfway there. This film rocked my world.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Another Miyazaki makes the list, and really, why not? With its strong environmental message and a moving plea for peace, Nausicaa is another winner from the Studio Ghibli camp. The animation seems a bit clunky at times, but some of the drawings are breathtaking in their impressionistic beauty. By the way, I'm watching all the Miyazaki films in Japanese with English subtitles. Just sayin'.
The Blob (1988)
A pre-Entourage Kevin Dillon battles a growing pile of pink slime in the remake of the 1958 Steve McQueen original. Awesomely slimy practical effects and a tight story leave this revivalist creature film a cut above.
The Sentinel (1977)
Michael Winner corrals an almost laughably rich cast (Chris Sarandon, Burgess Meredith, Ava Gardner, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Eli Wallach, Jose Ferrer, John Carradine, Martin Balsam, Beverly D'Angelo, etc...) in this spooky and well-crafted religious thriller. Sure it borrows from The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, The Antichrist, and a handful of other churchy-horrors, but The Sentinel is a worthy watch. Winner gets some flack around these parts, but I'm a fan. The film boasts two or three truly frightening scenes (it's been awhile since that happened), and the climax - with its use of actual deformed "actors" - is still disquieting.
Following almost directly on the heels of John Carpenter's Halloween (there was a small - but well-done - made for TV thriller, Someone's Watching Me! in between the two), Elvis is a true epic. Running a few minutes shy of three hours, Carpenter and star Kurt Russell do a fantastic job of recreating the life of the man who would be King. Starting with Elvis' childhood and ending after his 1969 comeback special, Carpenter exhaustively chronicles the ups and downs of Elvis Aron Presley. If a criticism could be leveled at this film, it would be that Carpenter pussyfoots around some of the more contentious issues issues of the King's life. Regardless, Carpenter's precise filmmaking style and obvious affection for his subject (born and raised in Kentucky, Carpenter would have been aware of the social environment in which Presley was raised) works wonderfully in tandem with Russell, who wears the skin of Elvis admirably. It doesn't hurt that Russell is, at times, a dead-ringer for the King himself. Masterful filmmaking is pulling off a 3-hour biopic that never feels like it drags, not for one second, and never feels like any information presented is superfluous, and that each scene is absolutely necessary. A major achievement that was released 2 years after Elvis died, and was unavailable on DVD until last week. Would make a fantastic double feature with Peter Watkins' Privilege. Walk the Line? Never heard of it...